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Memphis welcomes some of sport’s greatest in weekend honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

PUBLISHED January 17, 2023 | News

Gary Payton, Luol Deng, Nancy Lieberman and Eddie George are honored in Memphis during the city’s 2023 Martin Luther King Day Jr. celebration.

n Earl Lloyd’s 2003 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech, he said, “My career was influenced by two groups. There’s one group that told me what to do […] and there was a group that showed me what to do.”

Twenty years later, the Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy Symposium — named after the center who was the first Black basketball player to break the league’s color barrier in 1950 — honored four sports icons that have showed the world the qualities aligned with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and spirit with its Annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Awards.

Gary Payton, Luol Deng, Nancy Lieberman and Eddie George were highlighted this weekend not just for their athletic success, but for their contributions in service to their communities, as they were recognized in the award’s 18th year.

“[Being an honoree] means everything because of what Dr. King stood for.” Lieberman said, who said that her friendship with Lloyd deepened the emotion of the occasion for her. “And [for] what the Memphis Grizzlies do to never let his legacy be forgotten.”

The message of Dr. King, who spent his final days in Memphis, was the focal point of the honorees’ trip.

From participating in the symposium, to a participating in a panel discussion for the National Civil Rights Museum’s Intersection of Race & Sports, they immersed themselves in the city’s rich history with civil rights.

On Sunday, as they toured the museum along with luminaries like Danny Green and Grant Hill, they walked in stride with the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. almost 55 years prior, when he was assassinated in the former Lorraine Motel on the night of April 4, 1968.

[It] was like I was being thrown back in time.” George told NBA.com. 

“They do a phenomenal job of having you feel the tension of the times of the civil rights movement when you walk through there. The experiences, they try to put you in that place and it takes you there physically and emotionally.”

Reflecting on Dr. King’s work, Lieberman said she was hopeful for the impact of this generation of athletes could have in honoring and expanding upon his legacy.

“I really think young America really gets it,” Lieberman said. “They get the fact that they want to have change, and they have the power to have change. That is an awesome responsibility.

“My generation has to look at the next generation as gatekeepers not just to the game of basketball but to the game of life. And I feel so certain that the players in the NBA, the players in the [NBA] G League, the players in the WNBA, the Big 3, all these major leagues are pulling for something really powerful in the name of equality.”

One of those young players is Grizzlies center Jaren Jackson Jr., who features in ‘Change’, the NBA’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day spotlight piece for 2023.

Jackson Jr. reflected on the meaning of being a part of the city’s history, not only as a player, but as a figure involved in its future.

“[Playing in Memphis on MLK day] means so much just because there’s so much history within the city,” Jackson Jr. told NBA.com.

“We’re able to do so much in terms of giving back. It just goes hand in hand [with] what it means to the city and everybody on and off the court. And we’re just glad to be a part of it and do our part.”

The Grizzlies host the Suns (6 p.m. ET, TNT) to conclude their MLK weekend activities, where Lieberman, George, and the fellow honorees will be celebrated before the start of the game.

Lieberman said she was “beyond honored” by the recognition.

As she moves forward, she said she will continue to work in the spirit that placed her there.

“As long as the good Lord gives me energy, focus, and strength and health, I’m going to be on the frontlines with my brothers and sisters.”

George gave a similar call to action.

Theres one thing to remember the past and also celebrate that past, but there is another thing you have to do. You have to act upon it.”